Year after year, the Cariboo Cougars are one of the elite teams in the B.C. Hockey Major Midget League.
This regular season, they have outdone even themselves.
When the Cougars skated past the South Island Royals in a pair of games at CN Centre last weekend, they reached the 30-win plateau for the first time in club history. With 8-1 and 7-2 victories against South Island, the Cats elevated their record to 30-7-1. The Cougars will close out their regular schedule when they take on the Vancouver Northeast Chiefs Saturday and Sunday in Coquitlam and, naturally, will be looking to add two more 'Ws' to their total.
Coming out of training camp last fall, Cougars head coach Trevor Sprague knew this club would be a good one. But, even he didn't start considering that it might be a record-breaking one until the Cats went 3-1-1 at the international Mac's tournament in Calgary during the Christmas break.
"After the Mac's, based on what I saw with how the boys could play for 60 minutes and dominate the game against the great teams that we played against, I could see [the potential] at that point," he said. "I don't know if the players did, but I did, and that's why our standard is so high on how we go out and perform."
In their nine MML seasons, the Cougars have been under .500 just once (2005-06, record of 10-19-7). Twice -- in 2006-07 and 2010-11 -- they posted 28 victories and they have an overall winning percentage of .593.
Individually, a number of Cariboo players -- including Liam Blackburn, Brad Morrison and Nathan Warren -- have also etched their names in the team's record book this season. Blackburn owns the new mark for goals (31) and points (80), while Morrison established a new standard for rookie scoring with 18 goals and 47 points. Warren, meanwhile, has recorded a best-ever six shutouts and is currently tied with Jared Rathjen for most wins in a season with 20.
Naturally, the 15- to 17-year-old Cougars have bigger things in mind than just regular-season success. Ultimately, they're on the hunt for a playoff championship and a berth in the Telus Cup national tournament, April 22-28 in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont.
In each of the last three years, the Cougars advanced to the best-of-three MML final and lost to the Vancouver Northwest Giants. For the Cats, a playoff title this year will likely have to come at the expense of the G-men, who were champs at the Mac's and have already finished the MML season in first place with a record of 34-2-4.
"We can beat them," Sprague said. "Last time we played them [Dec. 16 in Prince George] we won 4-0. You look at the two games at the beginning of the year, we lost 3-2 with a lot of inexperienced guys in our lineup and now they've got the experience. And then we lost 6-5 the next day. A couple of our guys slept in and didn't get to play because of it, so we had some different things happen in that game.
"We just have to play good -- we have to play 60 minutes of hockey and play our game," Sprague added. "We need to be physical. That's the name of the game for us."
The other head-to-head meeting between the Cats and Giants happened Dec. 15 and ended 6-2 in favour of the G-men.
The second-place Cougars will open playoffs against the seventh-place Royals, the team they handled so easily on the weekend. The Cats will have home-ice advantage for the best-of-three quarterfinal and will be heavily favoured to win.
In playoff hockey, however, there are no certainties and that's a message Sprague will be hammering home as the post-season draws closer. But his team, he said, has been in playoff mode since coming home from the Mac's.
"There has been a higher expectation on how we practice and on our attention to detail," he said. "This is the pre-season and now we're getting into our playoff season after these next two games. It will all boil down to, do they want to play playoff hockey and are they mentally there?"
The Chiefs, the Cougars' opponent this weekend, are locked in fourth place with a 22-12-4 record.